By Lee J. Kahrs
BRANDON — There are two things no one thought they would ever see this summer: the sun, and the start of the Segment 6 Route 7 improvement project.
But the clouds parted over the weekend and Monday dawned another bluebird day in Brandon’s Central Park, where roughly 75 local residents, state and federal officials, legislators, and town officials came together for the Segment 6 groundbreaking ceremony.
Many people in attendance at the ceremony never thought they’d see the start of Segment 6 in their lifetimes. Talk of improving the road began over 20 years ago, and the event Monday, July 31, was significant enough to draw Gov. Phil Scott, Congressman Peter Welch, Vt. Secretary of Transportation Joe Flynn, and the entire Rutland County legislative delegation.
Brandon Chamber Executive Director and Segment 6 Communications official Bernie Carr was the master of ceremonies as the crowd gathered around a mount of dirt and 13 gold shovels in the middle of Central Park.
“Welcome everyone to this important moment in Brandon’s history,” Carr said. “We’ve planned and plotted, discussed and argued, toiled and tweaked and done our best as a community to develop a plan that would improve our little village and address so many of our needs. Well, the time has come that many had said wouldn’t happen in their lifetime.”
Rutland County Sen. Peg Flory (R) was among those who wondered if the project would ever be built. She was the chair of the Pittsford Select Board in 1996 when talk of improving the busy roadway first came up. The Omya calcium carbonate plant in Florence was talking expansion, and Flory said the company wanted assurances that Route 7 would be improved to handle truck traffic.
“I can’t believe it’s happening,” Flory said before the ceremony. “It’s what got me into the legislature.”
In 1996, Flory joined the steering committee organized to look at improving the road between Rutland and Brandon.
“I would go home and complain [about the process] and my son said, ‘You have no right to complain about the problem unless you’re willing to be part of the solution.’ So, I ran for the legislature.”
While there was talk of a bypass back in the mid-1950s, concerns about the effect on downtown businesses killed the idea. Over the ensuing decades, fatalities along Route 7 started to accrue, and a particularly devastating crash that killed four members of one family just south of Brandon’s downtown in the early 1990s ramped up talk of improving the road.
The Segment 6 portion of the Route 7 upgrade entails re-routing Route 7 around Central Park on the Carver Street and Union Street side, creating a parking area between the park and the line of businesses along the Brandon Inn portion of Park St. Central Park will be extended to the Civil War monument, and a traffic light will be installed at the intersection of Route 7, Carver, and Union Streets. Another traffic light will be installed at the intersection of Park Street and Route 7, although it may not be needed. Some utility lines will be moved underground, all sidewalks will be replaced, and new trees and shrubbery will be planted throughout.
The 30-month project, dubbed “An Even BETTER Brandon” by the Chamber, will cost $20.8 million, with the Federal Highway Administration funding 85 percent, VTrans funding 15 percent, and the town of Brandon contributing 5 percent of the cost.
Segment 6 stretches 1.2 miles, from the Brandon Fire Station to just past the Jiffy Mart convenience store. Engineers separated the project into six segments labeled “A” through “F.” Work will begin next week on Segment B, around Central Park, which is considered the most complex portion of the project.
Several officials spoke at Monday’s ceremony, including Town Manager Dave Atherton.“We’ve had some hurdles, but here we are,” he said. “These gold shovels represent what we’ve been trying to do over the last few years.”
The hurdles have been numerous, and the project was almost dead three years ago, when questionable town management led to inaction and delay on some key benchmarks for the project, including completion of the lengthy right-of-way process for 150 abutting properties.
Chris Bean of CLD Engineering said he was impressed with the Brandon community.
“The Brandon segment of this project is the most complex,” he said. “This is not a project that has been shoved at Brandon. There were times when people stood up in town and in VTrans and allowed this project to move forward. I’m very proud of this community and the people who worked to bring us here. We are going to work together to get it done and it will be something everyone will be proud of.”
U.S. Rep. Peter Welch said he wanted to take some of the dirt from the groundbreaking back to Washington, D.C.
“This was a complicated project,” he said. “This was a difficult project, but look at all the people who worked together to bring this project to this point. I am thrilled to be here and I can’t wait to bring some Brandon dirt back to Washington, D.C., to show them what cooperation and teamwork is all about.”
Gov. Phil Scott, a Republican, said he agreed with Welch, except for one thing.
“I will dispute that we need any more dirt in Washington,” he joked. “This is another project that will improve the lives of Vermonters. It doesn’t matter what party you’re in, we’re all part of the same team when it comes to infrastructure.”
There was another face in the crowd on Monday, that of former Brandon Town Manager Brannon Godfrey. Now the town manager of Warrenton, Va., Godfrey helmed town business in Brandon from 1992-1995, just as the first designs for the Segment 6 project were being drafted.
Godfrey said he and his family spend a week on Lake Dunmore each summer and enjoy seeing old friends. He just happened to be in the area this week for the Segment 6 ground breaking.
“It’s good to see it finally getting started,” he said. “It got off to a good start, then for the 20 years in between, I didn’t think it would happen.”
In his closing remarks after the golden shovels turned the earth, Carr thanked everyone for coming.
“Our thanks go out to literally hundreds of folks,” he said. “From our small town volunteer study and planning groups to the engineers and officials who brought this project to life, every one of them played a part in this grand plan. Thank you to all our distinguished guests for joining us today and thanks to all of you too. As we’ve proven through these last four years of construction after Tropical Storm Irene, working together we will continue to bring about an even BETTER Brandon.”
By Lee J. Kahrs
Thirteen golden shovels break ground for the village re-route of U.S. Route 7 in Brandon on Monday, July 31. U.S. Rep Peter Welch and Gov. Phil Scott were among the shovelers.